How important is the expected return of suspended Maryland running back Wes Brown for next season?

Jeff Barker: I thought Brown looked like Maryland’s most talented running back in his freshman season of 2012. So, it’s significant.

Running backs coach Andre Powell once told me of Brown: “Most of the time when you pair up big and fast in football, it's a pretty good combination."

Brown fumbled twice in Maryland’s second game of 2012 – a win over Temple – and I remember hoping that coaches would stick with him because he seemed the most natural runner of the tailbacks.

Coaches didn’t give up on Brown, who finished the season with 399 yards (4.2 average). But Brown was suspended for the entire 2013 season following a confrontation with police. His attorney says he’s expected back this spring, although the school’s decision is not yet final.

"Skill position" players are Maryland’s strength going into its first Big Ten season. Among thise players are receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long (both recovering from lower-leg fractures) and, potentially, Brown.

But there is a caveat: Brown will need improvement from Maryland’s offensive line in order to really show what he can do.

The Sun’s Peter Schmuck and I asked coach Randy Edsall about this last month.

“What we have to do is work very hard and continue to build up our offensive and defensive lines to the point where we’re going to be able to go head-to-head with the people we’re going to be playing,” the coach said. “I think we have an advantage because of some of the skills people we have. We might be a little more skillful than some people in the Big Ten. I think there are some tradeoffs.”

How does Maryland’s nonconference performance stack up against the rest of the ACC?

A lot has has been said about the disappointing nonconference performance of Mark Turgeon’s team as it heads back into ACC play Saturday at home against Georgia Tech. Not much, if anything, has been positive.

The good news for the Terps, aside from the fact that Seth Allen’s return has provided a big lift the past two games, is that much of rest of the league had its own struggles in November and December.

There is only one legitimate Top 10 team in the league, unbeaten Syracuse.

Duke is a Jabari Parker sprained ankle away from being pretty average.

North Carolina has the most Top 25 wins (Michigan State, Louisville, Kentucky) but has also lost at home to Belmont and Texas and on the road to Alabama-Birmingham.

The Tar Heels also learned that P.J. Hairston is gone for the season – and likely for good – after being suspended by the NCAA.

The team many expected to make a significant jump this season, Virginia, lost earlier this season to Wisconsin-Green Bay and is coming off a 25-point thumping at Tennessee.

Notre Dame lost at home to Indiana State and North Dakota State, nearly beat Ohio State on a neutral floor and then had its biggest loss of the season – leading scorer Jerian Grant, because of “an academic matter”.

A number of teams have not been challenged, including a one-loss Pittsburgh team that the Terps will play Monday night on the road.

The ACC is currently so unimpressive that ESPN.com still lists Maryland as one of six teams that will receive NCAA tournament bids, albeit as a downward-trending No. 13 seed. (The only other current longshot is Florida State.)

A year ago, the Terps headed into their ACC opener vs. Virginia Tech with a bloated 12-1 record, and after beating the less-than-mediocre Hokies, Maryland quickly showed it wasn't prepared to face the rigors of the league.

This year, Maryland has played a much more competitive nonconference schedule, and though it has faltered against the likes of Oregon State and Boston University (a team picked by many to win the Patriot League), the Terps have been in some close games.

Turgeon is correct when he says his team is 2-0, as he suggested when he scrawled  “1-0” on the whiteboard in Maryland's locker room after its recent win over Tulsa, because the NCAA tournament selection committee will take into account how Maryland fared after Allen returned from his injury.

As of today, there are just three teams that seem like NCAA tournament locks – the Orange, Blue Devils and Tar Heels, who might continue to struggle against mediocre teams, unless James Michael McAdoo learns to make free throws.

That’s not to say Maryland is without issues just because Allen is healthy.

While the point guard situation seemed to have settled down with the development of Roddy Peters and Allen’s return, just who Turgeon is going to use in the post seems to be a daily dilemma.

Free throw shooting remains a problem.

Two of the team’s best outside shooters, Evan Smotrycz and Jake Layman, come into the Georgia Tech game in the midst of shooting slumps.

Smotrycz has made 4 of his last 16 3-point shots and is 14-of-52 in the past four games. Layman is 4-of-14 overall and 2-of-10 over his last two games.

Already 1-0 after last month’s win at Boston College, the Terps need to do a better job holding serve at home than they’ve done in the preseason and they did last season.

The way the ACC is looking right now, winning at home could be the difference between playing in the postseason, or not. The way the ACC has played collectively, Maryland might not have as much catching up to do as one might think.

With Bill O'Brien leaving for the Houston Texans, what happens next with Penn State recruits?

Jonas Shaffer: For now, it doesn't look like much.

Defensive line coach and local recruiter Larry Johnson reportedly has been named interim head coach while the school conducts its search for O'Brien's successor, and none of the Penn State recruits you'd think Maryland would have interest in — running back Johnathan Thomas and defensive backs Marcus Allen and Troy Vincent (Gilman) — have hinted at wanting out of Happy Valley.

That could change whenever a new coach is named. Offensive lineman Jared Cohen (McDonogh), a onetime Terps commitment, is almost certainly monitoring the situation as closely as some of the program's committed players are. Whoever is tabbed to step in next could swing Cohen's chances of visiting, and ultimately committing to, Penn State.

What's more interesting — to me, at least — are the long-term ramifications of a new coach. What would happen if, say, former Maryland head-coach-in-waiting and current Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin were to take over at Penn State? What about former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano? Or Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell? Which one would Maryland fans most dread, and which would would actually be most successful? (The answer to both, I think, is Franklin).

These are all somewhat silly questions to ask, seeing as how we don't know who's even interviewing for the vacancy, nor do we know what will happen between now and Feb. 5, football's National Signing Day. But as Maryland's introduction to the Big Ten Conference creeps ever closer, the direction of Penn State football, as close to a rival the Terps will have in their early years in the conference, matters more and more each day.